Mobile v. Bolden

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Mobile v. Bolden
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued March 19, 1979
Reargued October 29, 1979
Decided April 22, 1980
Full case nameCity of Mobile, Alabama, et al. v. Wiley L. Bolden, et al.
Citations446 U.S. 55 (more)
100 S. Ct. 1490; 64 L. Ed. 2d 47; 1980 U.S. LEXIS 121
Prior historyJudgment for plaintiffs, 423 F. Supp. 384 (S.D. Ala. 1976); affirmed, 571 F.2d 238 (5th Cir. 1978), probable jurisdiction noted, 439 U.S. 815
Facially neutral electoral districting is constitutional, even if the at-large elections dilute the voting strength of black citizens.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Warren E. Burger
Associate Justices
William J. Brennan Jr. · Potter Stewart
Byron White · Thurgood Marshall
Harry Blackmun · Lewis F. Powell Jr.
William Rehnquist · John P. Stevens
Case opinions
PluralityStewart, joined by Burger, Powell, Rehnquist
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amends. XIV, XV; 79 Stat. 437, as amended, 42 U.S.C. 1973

Mobile v. Bolden, 446 U.S. 55 (1980),[1] was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that disproportionate effects alone — i.e. absent purposeful discrimination — are insufficient to establish a claim of racial discrimination affecting voting.

In Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960), which challenged new city boundaries that excluded virtually all black voters from Tuskegee, Alabama, the court had held that creating electoral districts which disenfranchised blacks violated the Fifteenth Amendment.[2] It did not as readily distinguish between intent and results as it would in Mobile.


In 1911 the state legislature enacted a three-member city commission form of government for the city of Mobile, Alabama. With members elected at-large, the commission exercised all legislative, executive and administrative power. Since the entire city voted for each Commissioner, the white majority generally controlled the elections. At the time both African Americans and poor whites were effectively disenfranchised by practices of the 1901 state constitution.

After African Americans regained the power to register and vote through passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, they were discouraged by being unable to elect candidates of their choice to the city commission. The financial and strategic demands for citywide elections made it difficult for them to enter the race, and the white majority tended to support white candidates, particularly as conservatives moved into the Republican Party. African Americans supported Democratic Party candidates.

In the late 1970s, a class-action suit was filed on behalf of all the city's black residents against the city and all three Commissioners. Their complaint alleged that the city's electoral system violated the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, among other laws. The District Court found for the city's black residents[3] and the Court of Appeals affirmed.[4] The form of city government was subsequently changed. (See below.)

The Supreme Court agreed to examine the issues to determine whether this at-large system violated Amendments Fourteen or Fifteen, or the Voting Rights Act.

Opinion of the Court[edit]

The Court ruled 6-3 for the city of Mobile. In his plurality opinion, Justice Stewart concluded that the relevant language of the Voting Rights Act paralleled that of the Fifteenth Amendment. Stewart analyzed the Fifteenth Amendment claim, citing "the District Court's findings of fact, unquestioned on appeal, [that] make clear that Negroes register and vote in Mobile 'without hindrance,' and that there are no official obstacles in the way of Negroes who wish to become candidates for election to the Commission."[5] In rejecting the Fifteenth Amendment claims, he held that "action by a State that is racially neutral on its face violates the Fifteenth Amendment only if motivated by a discriminatory purpose," which the District Court had found no evidence for.[6] The Court similarly rejected the Fourteenth Amendment claims and Justice Marshall's dissenting opinion in favor of finding such claims, stating, "Whatever appeal the dissenting opinion's view may have as a matter of political theory, it is not the law. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not require proportional representation as an imperative of political organization."[7] Justice Blackmun concurred in the result, but believed the District Court had exceeded its discretion in its order for remedial action, believing the District Court had failed to consider alternative remedies. Justice Stevens concurred in the judgment concerning the constitutionality of Mobile's system, but applied a slightly different standard in his concurring opinion.

The case somewhat limited the court's previous holding in Gomillion.


The Supreme Court remanded the case to the lower court for settlement. The district court proposed three single-member districts, noting that executive functions could not readily be separated among positions elected in this system. In addition, in this period Congress strengthened Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act with amendments changing the prohibition against "discriminatory intent" to creation of "discriminatory results" standard for use in evaluation of forms of government or electoral practices.[8]

In 1985 Mobile's state legislative delegation enacted a mayor-council form of government for the city, proposing seven members of the council to be elected from single-member districts, and the mayor to be elected at-large. Mobile at that time was the last major city in Alabama to retain a city commission form of government. This change was approved by state voters, who by that time included formerly excluded African Americans and poor whites.[8] The change to single-member districts enabled a wider range of candidates to enter politics at the local level. Since the change, African Americans and women have been elected to the Mobile city government for the first time in its history.


  1. ^ Mobile v. Bolden, 446 U.S. 55 (1980).  This article incorporates public domain material from this U.S government document.
  2. ^ Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U.S. 339 (1960).
  3. ^ Bolden v. Mobile, 423 F. Supp. 384 (S.D. Ala. 1976).
  4. ^ Bolden v. Mobile, 571 F.2d 238 (5th Cir. 1978).
  5. ^ Bolden, 446 U.S. at 73
  6. ^ Bolden, 446 U.S. at 62.
  7. ^ Bolden, 446 U.S. at 76-77.
  8. ^ a b James Blacksher, Edward Still, Nick Quinton, Cullen Brown, and Royal Dumas, "Voting Rights in Alabama 1982-2006", July 2006,, accessed 12 March 2015

External links[edit]